Discover more from Let's Talk Grad School
Let's get recommended
Our fifth book winner is Nathalie Dieujuste, a current PhD student! Be sure to enter the book giveaway for your chance to win a copy of A Field Guide to Grad School! More details below (at the end of the post). Now, onto the good stuff!
Throughout your academic career (and beyond), you are going to need to request letters of recommendation. Today, I’m focusing on letters needed for PhD applications; however, much of the advice shared is relevant for fellowship, grant, and award letters as well, especially at the undergraduate and graduate student levels. First, though, let’s acknowledge that asking for these letters can be difficult, even when asking a trusted mentor. If nervous, I recommend requesting letters via email and then following up “in-person” (whatever “in-person” means for you right now given your pandemic protocol) should you not receive a response within a week or so. Remember, faculty are super busy and it’s unlikely they are intentionally ignoring your emails!
Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s back up and walk through what constitutes a “good” letter writer (and always keep in mind that this is *my* advice and it may differ from the advice you receive from others). A good letter writer is someone who: 1) knows you well enough to discuss who you are and what you’re about in concrete terms (PIs and committees are looking for explicit examples illustrating your skills, contributions, and intellectual pursuits), 2) is invested in your success, and is willing and able to provide a strong recommendation, and 3) is knowledgable about the recommendation norms in your chosen discipline. Usually, it’s best (from what I’ve heard) to secure letters from faculty and senior research scientists; however, I have written many letters for successful candidates as a PhD student and postdoc. And, as a letter writer myself, I’ve had to learn how to draft letters for students applying to social science PhD programs, social work programs, law school, and medical school. So, make sure your writers understand what constitutes a strong letter in your desired discipline and know that it’s appropriate to provide guidance (e.g., my students applying to medical school shared a common recommendation resource), especially when requesting letters from writers in other areas.
Because this newsletter is for you—prospective and early-career PhD students—I’m going to focus on what *you* can do to help your recommenders write the strongest letters possible. More specifically, I’m sharing a list of documents you can provide to make this process as easy as possible. Everything I’m sharing here is something I’ve been asked to provide to previous letter writers myself.
CV or Resume: As a part of your PhD application, you’re going to need to submit a CV or resume. CVs are the norm in academic spaces, so aim to provide one of those if possible. I highly recommend reviewing the CVs of students in your lab and/or those provided online. In fact, David, who is this week’s scholar, has a wonderful CV available on his website (link below). You may also seek guidance from your school’s career center and even ask your mentor(s) to provide feedback. Most importantly, have this ready to share with your recommenders so they can quickly see all that you’ve done and accomplished.
Transcripts: Depending on when you’re applying to PhD programs (e.g., while an undergraduate vs. after several years in industry), your letter writers may want to see your transcripts. In my experience, unofficial transcripts are available to download for free at many institutions. If you haven’t already, make sure you have copies handy—not only for your letter writers, but for yourself (e.g., some applications may ask you to report your GPAs and you want to provide accurate responses). Transcripts can also be helpful in cases where your overall GPA is low(er), but you show an upward trajectory in performance (i.e., this is something you would want at least one recommender to comment on).
Program List and Deadlines: Your recommenders need to know where they’re expected to send their letters to and by when. Although you’ll often enter their names and contact information into application portals, which will then automatically email each writer, sharing a list of programs and deadlines will go a long way toward helping your recommenders know whether they’ve submitted everything needed or not. Also, many letter writers may ask you to send them reminder emails one or two weeks out from the deadlines, so be sure to do this! And do not fret if your writers do not submit your letters early. As I understand it, it’s far more important for applicants to submit their materials on time. In my experience, recommenders often submit their letters very close to the deadline (and it’s always been ok for me when letters have been submitted shortly past the deadline).
Personal (Research, Purpose) Statement: Do not be surprised if your letter writers ask that you share a draft of your personal statement (research statement, statement of purpose, whatever a school is calling it). If you don’t have a complete draft ready, you can ask whether an outline would suffice. Not sure how to start? Check out my post on “the anatomy of a personal statement” shared two weeks ago.
Contributions to Lab: This isn’t going to apply to everyone. It’s typical for students to request letters from a mix of former classroom faculty and research faculty (not that those faculty are mutually exclusive, rather it just means you might ask for letters from faculty with whom you’ve completed courses and from faculty with whom you’ve worked directly as a research assistant). If requesting letters from faculty heading labs you have worked in, be clear about your contributions to the lab. It’s not always obvious to faculty what individual research assistants are doing, especially when not working on theses. This same sort of approach could be helpful when requesting letters from former instructors as well, especially if a course was instrumental in your decision to pursue doctoral students and/or a specific content area.
Highlights: If you share all of the information mentioned above, well, that’s quite a bit of information. You may wish to include a cover sheet highlighting your top skills, accomplishments, and goals, including why you wish to pursue doctoral studies.
Final thoughts. Your recommenders may ask for none of this or all of this (and they may even have some additional requests). Regardless, I highly recommend having these materials ready to share and, at minimum, making them available after a letter writer has confirmed that they are able to strongly support your applications.
Some homework. If you haven’t yet requested letters from at least three people (in my experience, most PhD programs require three recommendation letters), do that soon! You want to be sure to give your writers ample time to plan for deadlines. And, with the above in mind, put together your information package for your letter writers. You may even wish to share a Google Folder so that your materials automatically update should you still be revising them (which is totally normal to be doing at this point in the year!).
SCHOLAR PROFILE #11: DAVID MENENDEZ
The purpose of these profiles is to highlight and connect you to scholars at different career stages doing interesting and important research and service work.
This week, we get to learn about David Menendez, who is PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Now, let’s learn about David’s academic journey.
What are your research interests?
My work combines cognitive development and STEM education. I am interested in what people learn about science in both formal and informal contexts. For example, I study how children learn about nutrition, illness, and death through conversations with parents, by watching movies, and by participating in cultural rituals. I also study how changing the design of lessons or educational materials influences how much students learn and generalize.
With whom are you working for your PhD?
I work with Dr. Martha Alibali, who is a Professor in the Department of Psychology, as well as Dr. Karl Rosengren, who is a Professor of Psychology, Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.
Why did you choose your PhD institution and advisor(s)?
I loved working with both of my advisors already (see below). They made me feel valued in their lab even as an undergraduate student and they went above and beyond to teach me about graduate school. The graduate students in their labs had only positive things to say. So it felt like the right choice…and I did not have other offers, so that helped.
Please share more about your academic journey.
After graduating high school in Medellin, Colombia, I moved to Miami, Florida. There I attended a local community college, Miami Dade College, to save some money before getting my bachelor’s. After 2 years at Miami Dade College, I transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to earn my bachelor’s. When I transferred to UW-Madison, I was thinking of being a clinical psychologist, and a transfer advisor told me that I would need to go to graduate school to be a clinical psychologist. This advisor also told me that getting research experience would be important for when I apply to graduate school and convinced me to take a class on Cognitive Development taught by Dr. Martha Alibali because it fit my schedule. I begrudgingly agreed even though the course description did not appeal to me. I ended up loving the course and joined Dr. Alibali’s lab to get some of research experience.
In the lab, I started working on a project exploring how students decide when to use new strategies to solve problems. I enjoyed research a lot, so I asked Dr. Alibali if I could do a senior thesis in her lab. She also recommended that I apply to the Psychology Research Experience Program, where the department would pay me to stay in Madison over the summer and do research. She also recommended that I should say I wanted to work with Dr. Rosengren, because we had similar interests and because it would increase my chances of getting into the program if I worked in a different lab. I was admitted into the program and that summer I worked on a project examining children’s understanding of death. I enjoyed working in both Dr. Alibali’s and Dr. Rosengren’s labs and so continued working with them both, including asking them to co-advise my senior thesis.
I applied to graduate school the Fall of my senior year and I applied to both clinical and developmental psychology programs. I was confused about what I wanted to do, so I decided to apply to both and let the universe decide for me. My graduate school application was honestly bad, but I got into one program, UW-Madison’s developmental psychology program working with my current advisors.
The summer before graduate school I decided to participate in another summer research experience program, this time through the University of Southern California, which allowed me to travel to Mexico City and work at the Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatria examining the predictors of adolescent suicide. I liked this research experience but it also showed me that I enjoyed cognitive research more than clinical research, which got me super excited about starting graduate school!
In my third year of graduate school, Dr. Rosengren decide to move from UW-Madison to University of Rochester. Although we still work together, I have transitioned fully to being in Dr. Alibali’s lab while at UW-Madison.
How did you navigate the PhD application process?
I talked A LOT with the graduate students in the lab I was working in. They pointed me to some schools and advisors and told me which people to avoid. Crucially, they read my statements multiple times to make sure they were as good as they could be.
What is one bit of advice you'd like to give new (first-year) PhD students?
Try to form relationships with other professors who are not your advisor(s). Many things can change while you are in graduate school, and it is great to have other options if your advisor moves to another university or your working relationship is not good. If none of that ever happens, then you have great relationships with the people on your dissertation committee!
Is there anything else about you or your journey that you’d like to share?
In the summer of my fourth year of graduate school, I did a summer internship at ACT, Inc. I loved that summer internship and it taught me a lot about science education, jobs outside of academia, and time management. I would recommend that all PhD students look into doing an internship during graduate school. It can help you decide what you really like about academia, what you do not like, and what a job outside of higher education looks like.
Many thanks to David for sharing more about his academic journey!
In this section, I highlight resources you may find helpful as you navigate the PhD application process as well as the PhD itself. This week, I’m sharing two Twitter threads as well as a link to a program designed to help social science and humanities PhDs explore different post-PhD career options.
Twitter Threads: Twitter can be a great place to connect with other folks folks in academia via #AcademicTwitter. I’ve had wonderful experiences meeting up with Twitter connections at conferences and have even formed some new friendships! It can also be a difficult place (think back to my post about social comparison). So, jump in when you’re ready, but never hesitate to take a break or even mute certain words and phrases!
Sample grad school application materials from @sjay_yayy
Mapping out your time management from @page_gould
ImaginePhD: ImaginePhD is a free online career exploration and planning tool for PhD students and postdoctoral scholars in the humanities and social sciences.
This resource was recently shared out by Dr. Sara Hart via Twitter (again, Twitter can be a wonderful place!). Its purpose is to help PhD Students plan for different careers following the PhD. I haven’t given it a look myself, but it seems like a very interesting tool. Coupled with David’s advice above, it seems like a good idea to explore multiple post-PhD routes even if there is one route preferred above and beyond the rest.
How to reach me: You are always welcome to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or find me on Twitter @tweetsbymidge.
Let’s give away some books: Readers located in the United States and Canada are eligible to enter the book giveaway to receive a copy of A Field Guide to Grad School by Dr. Jessica Calarco. To do so, complete this survey and note that you only have to complete it once to be entered in all subsequent giveaways! I do hope to expand the reach of the giveaway; however, at the moment, the shipping costs are too great to scale. If you’d like to talk about ways your institution could secure an electronic (or hard) copy, please let me know (sign up for a 1-on-1 meeting below!).
1-on-1 sessions: Interested in some additional mentorship? Sign up for 1-on-1 sessions to discuss your questions regarding the social science PhD application process and/or completing a social science PhD more generally! Sign-ups will happen via Calendly and you can check periodically for updated openings. Sign up here!
Until next time!